‘Anti-American,’ Pushing ‘Marxism,’ and More: Do You Recognize Your College Here?

If you live in Idaho and you’ve recently flipped on the radio or picked up a landline phone when it rang, you may have heard a confident male voice on the other end, painting an ugly portrait of higher education in the Gem State. Public colleges are teaching students “to hate America,” the voice says, in at least one version of the recorded message. These institutions are promoting Marxism and socialism. They’re “attacking law enforcement, the Second Amendment,” and “pushing the cancel culture that threatens all of us.”

It’s time, the voice insists, to take a stand, and for Idaho to become the first state to stop “leftist indoctrination” on college campuses. “Will it work?” the voice asks before it answers in the affirmative: “We say, Yes.”

The “we” saying yes is Idaho Freedom Action. It’s the advocacy arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. Idaho Freedom Action’s campaign calls itself an effort to “Fix Idaho Colleges” by pressuring state lawmakers to end “anti-American programs” on campuses, and says Idaho students are being conditioned to “apologize for being white” and “shut up because of their gender or race.” (The campaign lists more grievances, but you get the idea.) So far, Freedom Action has spent thousands of dollars on radio ads to reach “freedom-loving Idahoans” and placed tens of thousands of phone calls to inform citizens about “social justice on campus,” it says in a recent campaign email.

So what is the Idaho Freedom Foundation? It was established in 2009 and has in recent years focused on higher education, grabbing the attention of lawmakers. The foundation is perhaps best known for its Freedom Index, which scores lawmakers according to how they vote. The organization pushes for limited government — Wayne Hoffman, president of the foundation, criticizes a “statist of the week” on YouTube — and has waged, and lost, several lawsuits, including against the state’s Medicaid expansion.

This past year, it fixated on the state’s response to Covid-19. When Gov. Brad Little extended a statewide stay-at-home order, the foundation encouraged Idahoans to disobey. The group later published a “declaration” demanding an end to state and local emergency orders. That a pandemic “may or may not be occurring” changes nothing “about the meaning or intent of the state constitution in the preservation of our inalienable rights,” it says. In October, some state lawmakers read aloud that declaration in a video for the foundation. Janice McGeachin, the lieutenant governor, read her portion while holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, the American flag in frame.

The foundation has been scrutinized for underreporting its lobbying efforts and for its opaque funding sources. Between 2010 and 2017, the Idaho Statesman reported, it received nearly $700,000 from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, two of the biggest tax-exempt funds that “bankroll libertarian-leaning organizations.” The donors funds had received donations from Charles and David Koch. Hoffman told the outlet at the time that about 90 percent of its donations came from Idahoans that year, saying, “There is no ATM from the Koch brothers.” The foundation’s publicly available tax forms do not list contributors. (Hoffman, through the foundation’s vice president, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

More recently, the foundation and its board members have been criticized for accepting nearly $130,000 and more than $2 million, respectively, in Paycheck Protection Program loans, local outlets reported. Hoffman defended the decision. Though taking out a federally backed loan “gives me heartburn,” he wrote in an op-ed, “I knew that the socialists we fight every day wouldn’t have similar reservations,” and they would “use this moment to advance their awful policy ideas. We couldn’t let that happen.”

In 2017, the foundation waded into the realm of higher education and its perceived porousness to leftism. That August, Scott Yenor, a professor of political science at Boise State, wrote a commentary in the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, arguing that transgender rights are an extension of the “radical feminist” agenda and that “respecting the sexual and gender ‘choices’ of ever-younger children erodes parental rights.” Students called for his firing. The dean of the School of Public Service said the article was inconsistent with one of the school’s core values but also defended Yenor’s rights as a public scholar. The director of student diversity and inclusion connected Yenor’s argument to the deadly white-supremacist rally that month in Charlottesville, Va. Yenor’s article “includes a seed of hate that needs to be labeled for what it is, the spirit of an ideological animal called supremacy,” the then-director, Francisco Salinas, wrote in a post on the school’s website.

That led the Freedom Foundation to call on the state Board of Education and the legislature to “target diversity-education monies at all public universities.” It echoed that call in 2019 when Boise State’s interim president, Martin Schimpf, mentioned in a letter to the campus community that resources are going toward multicultural student events, like ceremonies to honor the university’s Black and LGBTQIA graduates. Hoffman called the letter a “buffet of braggadocio about the school’s reinforcement of the ‘otherization’ of students and staff.” There should be “no tolerance,” he wrote, “for policies or expenditures that cater to the culture of victimhood.”

By then, that sentiment had caught fire at the statehouse. In July 2019, 28 House Republicans co-signed a letter to the incoming Boise State president, Marlene Tromp, telling her that the university should stop supporting diversity-and-inclusion programs, the Statesman reported. In March 2020, House Republicans killed the higher-education budget, citing support for those programs as one reason. Said one Republican representative at the time: “We’re talking about equity and inclusion instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

The attacks have only escalated further. In December 2020, the foundation came out with a 36-page report on “social justice ideology” at Boise State. Co-authored by Yenor, the Boise State paper contends that academics and administrators across the country are “no longer merely pushing progressive politics.” Worse, they now aim to transform colleges into institutions “dedicated to political activism and ideological indoctrination.” Occasionally punctuating its points with quotes from writers and philosophers on the nature of good and evil, the report recommends nine reforms, including that departments in gender studies, sociology, global studies, social work, and history be eliminated. (Research has shown that faculty members have little influence on students’ political attitudes, and that the thesis of “liberal indoctrination” is overblown.) “Social-justice culture” at the institution has grown “beyond its infancy and is headed toward adolescence,” it says. In February 2021, the foundation published a similar report on the University of Idaho.

At a budget hearing this year, Rep. Ron Nate, a Republican, echoed some of the report’s points and accused Boise State of “supporting the ‘Marxist cause’ of Black Lives Matter,” among other things, Idaho Education News reported. The university has put no state dollars into Black Lives Matter, Tromp said at the hearing. The state Senate later approved a higher-ed appropriations bill that would slice $409,000 from the university’s bottom line — money the university had said it spent on social-justice programs, according to one senator — and give that money to Lewis-Clark State College. Chris Norden, a professor of English and environmental studies there, said he worries about this “divide and conquer” approach, which he said seems like an attempt to force institutions to compete with one another over how drastically they will self-censor.

Idaho Freedom TV, the YouTube Channel of the Idaho Freedom Foundation

A video by the Idaho Freedom Foundation features state lawmakers demanding an end to Covid-19 emergency orders.

Hard-liner conservative lawmakers want the budget cuts to go deeper, and so does Idaho Freedom Action. In March, the organization urged citizens through Fix Idaho Colleges to contact specific House members and tell them to make “real cuts.” Tell Rep. Megan Blanksma, a Republican, that “you’re sick and tired of universities churning out left-wing activists and social justice warriors,” instructs a recent message.

Norden was home one day when he got one of those “McCarthyite” robocalls, which spread “smears” that “smack of white supremacist innuendo,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. In the state of Idaho, “we need to keep our talented young people, not drive them away,” he wrote. The “hatemongering is not helping.” Already, there’s been a chilling effect among some faculty members, said Leontina Hormel, a professor of public sociology at the University of Idaho, who is married to Norden. She said she knows professors who, out of fear of becoming a target, are now more cautious in how they present certain concepts to students.

Professors aren’t the only ones objecting. One representative, Linda Wright Hartgen, a Republican, told the Times-News that she’s received dozens of phone calls as a result of the campaign. She doesn’t think that universities are indoctrinating students with anti-American beliefs, she told the news outlet, and doesn’t want her constituents to think she does.

Idaho Freedom Action is not slowing down. Lawmakers return on April 6 to finish the legislative session after going on hiatus because of a Covid-19 outbreak. On Wednesday, the group sent an email telling citizens that time is running out. “We are feverishly working on a final campaign push — thousands of phone calls, text messages, and radio ads — to make sure lawmakers know Idahoans won’t stand for another dime of tax money to be spent on Leftist indoctrination,” it says. But there’s a problem. Idaho Freedom Action is more than $1,000 short.

Click here to donate, the email says. With your non-tax-deductible donation, you can show the nation how the culture war can be won.

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